The EU-USA Visa Battle: ESTA and VWP


The Visa Battle
Will Americans soon need to have a visa for travel to Europe? Probably not, but a new battle over visas has broken out between the United States and the European Union.

The first skirmish of this ongoing battle took place in 2014. That was when the EU first became aware that Australia, Brunei, Canada, Japan, and the United States were not offering full visa-free reciprocity for certain EU members. Citizens of Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland, and Romania had to have visas in order to enter the five offending countries. Of the five nations, only the USA has failed to change its visa policy, and add Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland, and Romania to its Visa Waiver Program (WVP), which currently applies to 38 countries, most of them in the EU.

So in early March 2017, the European Parliament passed a non-binding resolution calling for the EU to require travel visas for US citizens entering any EU nation. The intention of the resolution was to draw a line in the sand prior to a scheduled June 15 meeting between US and EU officials. The parliament’s vote was a message to the European Commission to take a harder line with the Trump administration on the visa issue. That may be problematic, since the new US president does not seem to be very receptive to relaxing any entry requirements.

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But there is more inequality here than just the matter of the USA requiring a visa for some EU nations, and not others.

e-passport cover

This US passport has the microchip icon that indicates it is an e-passport. PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

ESTA and VWP
If you’ve never heard of the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) before now, it probably means you’re a US citizen who has never had to be concerned with ESTA. But travelers from EU countries and certain other nations know all about ESTA, because they have to have it before they can enter the United States of America. So why are we all hearing about ESTA now?

It all began in 2007. The Implementing Recommendations of the 9/11 Commission Act of 2007 was signed into law by President George W. Bush on August 3, 2007. This new law required most travelers entering the USA by air or sea to go online and apply for an ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) – even if they were not required to have a travel visa for visits of 90 days or less. Passengers were able to sign up for the ESTA in August 2008, and it became mandatory from January 12, 2009. According to CBP, it takes about 20 minutes to complete the ESTA application. Once pre-screened, passengers may reuse the ESTA approval for two years, although they may still need to complete the I-94W paper form for land entry.

The US now recognizes 38 Visa Waiver Program (VWP) nations, not including Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Poland, and Romania. Citizens from VWP countries do not need a visa to enter the US for visits of up to 90 days. But they do need the ESTA. Americans and Canadians traveling to Europe do not need a visa or any ESTA-like form for stays of 90 days or less. All they need is a valid e-passport, which is a microchip-enabled passport with a chip symbol on the cover. Visa-waiver travelers entering the USA from Europe must also must have an e-passport.

Bottom line: Americans don’t need visas to enter EU countries, including Austria and Germany, but the citizens of some EU nations need a visa to enter the US. Switzerland is not in the EU, but it also falls under the VWP, allowing visa-free travel.

VWP Countries (as of March 2017)
Here are the 38 countries that have Visa Waiver Program agreements with the US, allowing visa-free travel between the US and these nations.

Andorra
Australia
Austria
Belgium
Brunei
Chile
Czech Republic
Denmark*
Estonia
Finland
France
Germany
Greece
Hungary
Iceland
Ireland
Italy
Japan
Latvia
Liechtenstein
Lithuania
Luxembourg
Malta
Monaco
Netherlands
New Zealand
Norway
Portugal
San Marino
Singapore
Slovakia
Slovenia
South Korea
Spain
Sweden
Switzerland
Taiwan
United Kingdom
* with Greenland

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NOTE: The information on this page and on this website is not intended as legal advice. You are advised to consult a lawyer concerning any specific legal concerns regarding travel visas, a German residence permit, or working in Germany.